Take a niacin "vacation"

I've been seeing a curious niacin phenomenon that has not, to my knowledge, been reported anywhere in the medical literature.

People with lipoprotein(a), or Lp(a), are best treated with niacin, particularly given the relative lack of other effective therapies. I now have seen approximately 10 people with great initial responses to niacin, only to observe Lp(a) levels slowly drift back up to the starting level over a period of 2-3 years.

In other words, if starting Lp(a) is 200 nmol/l (approximately 80 mg/dl), drops to 70 nmol/l on niacin. Then, over 2-3 years of treatment, it drifts back to 200 nmol/l. Very frustrating.

Somehow, your body's Lp(a) manufacturing mechanism circumvents the niacin, sort of like antibiotic resistance (without the bacteria, of course).

My response to this, though untested, is to have people take an occasional "niacin vacation". I don't mean take a trip to the Bahamas while on niacin. I mean take 2 weeks off from niacin every three months or so. My hope is that the occasional vacation from niacin will allow the body to continue to respond and suppress "resistance". When resuming niacin, you may have to escalate the dose gradually to avoid re-provoking the "flush".

The same "resistance" seems to develop to testosterone in males: an initial drop followed by a gradual increase. Curiously, I've not seen this in females with estrogens, which seems to generate a durable Lp(a) suppressing effect. For this reason, an occasional testosterone "vacation" might also be considered.

So far, I've advised several people to try this. The long-term success or failure, however, is uncertain. I know of no other solutions, however.

If you have Lp(a) and are on long-term niacin, you should consider talking about this issue with your physician. Like many aspects of Lp(a), while fascinating in its complexity, much remains uncertain. Stay tuned.

When LDL is more than meets the eye

Jerry wanted to know what to do with his LDL cholesterol of 112 mg/dl. "My doctor said that it's not high but it could be better."

So I asked him what the other numbers on his lipid panel showed. He pulled out the results:

LDL cholesterol 112 mg/dl

HDL 32 mg/dl

Triglycerides 159 mg/dl

I pointed out to Jerry that, given the low HDL and high triglycerides, his calculated LDL of 112 was likely inaccurate. In fact, if measured, LDL was probably more like 140-180 mg/dl. LDL particles were also virtually guaranteed to be small, since low HDL and small LDL usually go hand-in-hand (though small LDL can still occur with a good HDL).

So Jerry's LDL is really much higher than it appears. To prove it, Jerry will require an additional test, preferably one in which LDL is measured, such as LDL particle number (NMR), apoprotein B, or "direct" LDL.

It's really quite simple. Jerry likely has a high number of LDL particles that are too small. This pattern confers a three- to six-fold increased risk for heart disease.

Treatment requires more than just reducing LDL. Small LDL--an important component of this pattern, responds, for instance, to a reduction in processed carbohydrates like wheat products (breads, breakfast cereals, pretzels, etc.), NOT to a low-fat diet. Weight loss to ideal weight, especially loss of abdominal fat, will yield huge improvements in these numbers. Niacin may be a necessary component of Jerry's treatment program, since it increases LDL size and raises HDL.

For more discussion on measures superior to LDL cholesterol, see my upcoming editorial, Let Dr. Friedewald Lie in Peace (an expansion of a previous Heart Scan Blog). It will be posted on the Cardiologist on Call column on the Track Your Plaque website within the next week.)

Oil-based vitamin D

As time passes, I gain greater and greater respect for the power of restoring vitamin D blood levels to normal, i.e. 50-70 ng/ml. Just yesterday, I saw several people with blood levels of <10 ng/ml--severe deficiency.

Vitamin D deficiency this severe poses long-term risk for osteoporosis, arthritis, colon cancer, prostate cancer, inflammatory diseases, diabetes, and heart disease. Vitamin D appears to make coronary plaque reversal--reduction of your heart scan score--easier and faster.

But it is important that you take the right kind of vitamin D. Several of the people I saw yesterday with vitamin D levels of somebody living in total darkness were taking vitamin D, but they were taking tablets. Tablets are the wrong form. Powder-based tablets, in my experience, yield little or no rise in blood levels. Some preparations generate a small rise but the dose required is huge.

If you're going to take vitamin D, take a preparation that yields genuine and substantial rises in blood levels. This requires an oil-based capsule. I commonly see blood levels of 25-OH-vitamin D3 rise from, say, 10 ng/dl to 60 ng/ml when oil-based capsules are taken.

The most common dose I prescribe to patients is 2000 units per day to females, 3000-4000 units per day to males in non-sun exposed months. Ideally, your dose is adjusted to blood levels.

The Vitamin Shoppe preparation pictured here is one I've used successfully and generates bona fide rises in blood levels. And it costs around $5. Just be sure the preparation you buy is oil-based.

For rapid success, try the "fast" track

Have you tried fasting?

Before your eyes glaze over, let me tell you what I mean. I don't mean a water-only fast for two weeks while you drool over all the temptations around you and you feel sorry for yourself.

I also don't mean the juice fasts that some people use that turn into fruit juice fasts of pure sugar.

Here's another way to do it. Usually, 48 hours of doing this will yield several benefits:

--Weight loss of 1 lb. You will likely experience an even greater weight loss of 2-4 lbs, but much of this will be water loss.

--If you're like me and share a heightened sensitivity to sugars and carbohydrates (like wheat), you may find out just how awful you feel when you eat certain foods. Many people tell me they feel absolutely wonderful when they fast--clearer thinking, increased energy, improved mood. Not the constant gnawing urge to eat they expected.

--After your fast is over, you look back and realize just what large portions of food you were eating. You'll be content with smaller quantities--and enjoy it more.

The "fast" I've used successfully includes two foods:

1) Vegetable juices--that you either juice yourself or purchase. V8 or its equivalent works pretty well. Though purchased V8 is not the best, it's better than nothing and does work reasonably well. If you juice your own vegetable juices, watch out for the diarrhea if you're unaccustomed to vegetable juices. Four 8 oz glasses per day works well.

2) Soy milk--for a source of protein and modest quantity of sugar and fat. I like the Light Silk Soymilk (Vanilla) which contains 80 calories, 2 g fat (0.5 g monounsaturated), 7 g sugar, 6 g protein per 8 oz glass. Four 8 oz glasses of soymilk also work well. In my neighborhood, 8th Continent is another good choice.

Sip both of these throughout the day. Of course, drink water in unrestricted amounts.

What can you expect in your coronary plaque control/heart scan score reversal program? When the fast is over, a rise in HDL, reduction in small LDL, reduction in triglycerides, reduction in blood sugar and insulin, and a smaller tummy. This strategy can be useful to kick-start weight loss efforts or as a periodic way to maintain control over weight and lipid/lipoprotein patterns.

Nutritional Composition Silk Soymilk--Vanilla

Nutrition Facts
Serving Size 1 cup (240mL)
Servings per container 8 H/G OR 4 QT

Amount per Serving

Calories 70
Calories from Fat 20

% Daily Value
Total Fat 2g 3%
Saturated Fat 0g 0%
Trans Fat 0g
Polyunsaturated Fat 1g
Monounsaturated Fat 0.5g

Cholesterol 0mg 0%
Sodium 120mg 5%
Potassium 300mg 8%
Total Carbohydrates 8g 3%
Dietary Fiber 1g 4%
Sugars 6g
Protein 6g
Vitamin A 10%
Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 30%
Iron 6%
Vitamin D 30%
Riboflavin 30%
Folate 6%
Vitamin B12 50%
Magnesium 10%
Zinc 4%
Selenium 8%

No flush = No effect

"Inositol Hexanicotinate is the true 'flushless niacin.' Unlike 'sustained-release' niacin, which is just regular niacin in a pill which dissolves more slowly, Inositol Hexanicotinate is a niacin complex, formed with the B-vitamin-like inositol. When you take an IHN supplement, the central inositol ring gradually releases niacin molecules, one at a time delivering true niacin. This, like “sustained-release” niacin, allows you to take niacin at clinically-proven doses without going crazy with the itch."

That above bit of nonsense adorns one manufacturers sales pitch for its no-flush niacin. No-flush niacin is one of the biggest scams in the health food store.

Ordinarily, I love health food stores. There's lots of fun and interesting things available that pack real power for your health program. Unfortunately, there's also outright nonsense. No-flush niacin is absolute nonsennse.

No-flush niacin is inositol hexaniacinate, or an inositol molecule complexed with 6 niacin molecules. So it really does contain niacin. However, although it works in rats, it exerts no known effect in humans.

Just Friday, a 41-year old woman came to my office for consultation because her doctor didn't know what to do with lipoprotein(a). She had seen a cardiologist who told her to take no-flush niacin. Both the cardiologist and the patient were therefore puzzled when lipoprotein(a) showed no drop and, in fact, was slightly higher on the no-flush preparation.

The lack of any observable effect and no studies whatsoever showing a positive effect (there is one study demonstrating no effect), manufacturers continue to manufacture it and health food stores continue to push it as an alternative to niacin that causes the flush. It's quite expensive, commonly costing $30-$50 for 100 tablets.

Don't fall for this gimmick. Niacin is among the most helpful of treatments for gaining control over coronary plaque. It raises HDL, corrects small LDL, reduces triglycerides (along with its friend, fish oil, of course), reduces lipoprotein(a), and dramatically contributes to reduced heart attack risk. No-flush niacin does none of this. Track Your Plaque Members: For a thorough discussion of niacin--how to use it, what preparations work and which do not, read Niacin: Ins and outs, ups and downs on the www.cureality.com website.

"Black holes" on heart scan

Lots of smokers, especially younger smokers, rationalize their habit by telling themselves that they'll stop if and when any hint of adverse health effects develop.

The problem is that, even in the first decade of smoking, dramatic and profound effects can develop--but you won't know it.

One of the most graphic examples of this I see every day in people who have heart scans. While CT heart scans are, of course, for identification of coronary plaque/coronary disease, they're also great for visualizing the lungs.

This man is a light smoker. The lungs are the black tissues (that's normal) on either side of the (white) heart in the center. Now, note the holes in the lung tissue. That's what they literally are: holes left by the destrucive, tissue-eating effects of cigarette smoking.

How common are the holes (or emphysematous "blebs", as they're called in medical lingo)? Very common. You'll even see them in 30-somethings who've smoked only a few years.

These are holes that have nothing in them. The lung tissue that was destroyed to create the hole will never grow back, even when smoking stops. The holes in this example are actually small to average in size. I've seen much bigger. And this only represents the early stages of lung tissue destruction. A long-time heavy smoker shows all other sorts of abnormalities.

Whenever I show these "black holes" to people who smoke, they are horrified and I've actually gotten many people to quit. Take the opportunity to quit as soon as you can if you smoke.

Small LDL--a persistent bugger

Sometimes, small LDL is easy to get rid of. Take niacin, for instance, and it can simply disappear from your body.

But other times, it can be aggravatingly persistent. Several times every day, in fact, I need to run through the checklist of strategies to reduce small LDL with patients.

How important is small LDL? In my experience, it is among the most potent causes behind coronary plaque known. It's a big part of the explanation why some people at an LDL of cholesterol of X mg/dl will have heart disease, while others with the same X mg/dl of LDL will not. When present, small LDL particles are much more likely to trigger atherosclerotic plaque formation. Small LDL particles magnify Lp(a)'s ill-effects tremendously. The data vary but small LDL probably increases heart attack risk at least three-fold.

Here's a checklist of strategies that I advise patients to consider to minimize the small LDL pattern:

--Lose weight to ideal weight--This is very important and effective.

--Fish oil--A relatively small effect unless triglycerides are high to begin with.

--Reduction of wheat products--This can provide a BIG effect. More precisely, a reduction in high-glycemic index foods is effective. But the biggest day-to-day high-glycemic food culprits are wheat products like breads, pasta, crackers, chips, pretzels, and breakfast cereals. "You mean whole wheat bread makes small LDL?!" Yup.

--Reduction of sweets--For the same reasons as reducing wheat products.

--Add raw almonds and walnuts--1/4 to 1/2 cup per day.

--Replace wheat products with OAT products, especially oat bran. This does NOT mean oat-containing breakfast cereals with added sugar and wheat, e.g., Honey Nut Cheerios, Cracklin' Oat Bran Cereal, etc. You might as well eat candy. Buy oat bran as plain oat bran--nothing added. Use it as a hot cereal or added to yogurt, "breading" for chicken, etc.

--Vitamin D--A variable effect, likely resulting from its beneficial effects on "insulin resistance".


--Niacin--Very effective but not always enough.

Among the choices, my favorites are weight loss, niacin, and reduction of wheat products. Those will give you the biggest bang for your buck.

Red badge of courage

A group of 60- and 70-somethings were standing in the anteroom to the cardiac rehabilitation center. All (males) had their T-shirts pulled up, comparing their coronary bypass scars.

It reminds me of war veterans comparing their war wounds. The scars of suffering, of having "conquered" and won a war with a common enemy, a badge of courage.

This is part of the broad social acceptance of bypass surgery and other major procedures for heart disease. Hospitals support it. They do it for the psychological support for patients enduring a difficult process. Often, talking about a shared experience can be a helpful purge for the fears and frustrations of a traumatic event.

Curious thing, though. I've actually had people request bypass surgery simply because all their friends have had one. No kidding. "I just figure my time is coming. I might as well get it over with."

Get the picture? We've had a battle with heart disease and the hospitals have won. The enormous success of hospitals over the last 20 years is not because of delivering babies, it's not from psychiatric hospitalization, it's not from cancer treatment. It's from heart disease. The largest floors in the hospital are usually the cardiac floors. The bulk of revenues and profit are from heart disease.

If I manufacture widgets and each widget I sell makes me scads of money, guess what? I want to sell more and more widgets. I'll persuade people they need my widgets even if they don't. Perhaps I'll even persuade them that buying one is a noble cause. Maybe I'll subtly suggest that I am a charitable operation and I only sell my products for the public good. I could even name my company after a saint. Personal profit--absolutely not!

Ignore the hype. See hospitals and their "products" for what they are: A necessary service--some of the time; profitable products that they hope to sell to more and more people most of the time.

"We don't believe in heart scans"

Tim's CT heart scan score was an earth-shattering 3,447, clearly in the upper stratosphere of percentile rank. Risk of heart attack: 25% per year. At age 58, it was a wonder that nothing had happened yet.

Tim went to the Cleveland Clinic for an opinion, long a powerful bastion of heart procedures. The consulting cardiologist told Tim, "We don't believe in heart scans. They're wrong too often."

An opinion from a widely-respected cardiovascular center. If they don't "believe" in heart scans, does that mean they "believe" in stents and bypass surgery? Does it mean that the thousands of research studies that have now been published on the value of heart scanning are pure fiction? Is there a choice to believe or not believe?

I continue to be shocked at the extraordinary ignorance on the topic of heart scanning among my colleagues. The number one killer of Americans and you still rely on stress tests?

Why this perception that heart scans are "wrong too often"? What this cardiologist means, I believe, is that when people are taken to the cath lab for catheterization, a substantial number of those with positive heart scan scores don't have "blockage". But I could have told him that even before the heart catheterization.

There is an expected and well-documented likelihood of finding significant "blockage" based on your heart scan score. At Tim's scary score of 3,447, what is the likelihood of "blockage" of 50% or more? It's around 40-50%. That means that half the people at this score will have a blockage sufficient to justify inserting stents or undergoing bypass surgery, half will not. There will indeed be many plaques, but none severe enough to block flow.

Does that make the heart scan wrong? I don't think it does. Just because you don't need a major procedure to "fix" blockages does not mean that no heart disease is present. Without preventive efforts, Tim's heart attack risk remains an alarming 25% per year--whether or not he gets stents or bypass. The only treatments that substantially reduce this risk (in an asymptomatic person) are preventive efforts, not procedures.

Yet cardiologists like the one Tim consulted at the Cleveland Clinic regard heart scans as something "he doesn't believe in". I would suggest a return to the textbooks and published literature and re-thinking how heart disease should be managed.

Heart scans should provide an opportunity for prevention, not an opportunity for profit.

More on the “Rule of 60”

Despite its apparent simplicity, there’s a lot of thought and wisdom in the Rule of 60.

What if you achieve only a single value in the Track Your Plaque “Rule of 60”? What if, for instance, you got LDL down to 60 mg/dl, but ignored the fact that your HDL was 41 mg/dl and triglycerides were up to 145 mg/dl? Can you still do pretty well?

Probably not. In fact, this specific combination of low HDL and high triglycerides tells me several things:

1) LDL is really much higher than suggested by the 60 mg/dl, which is a calculated value, often much higher. Recall that calculated LDL is prone to immense inaccuracy. When measured, the LDL is commonly somewhere between 120 and 160 mg/dl. However, when you raise HDL to 60 and reduce triglycerides to 60, much of the inaccuracy is removed, i.e., calculated LDL becomes more accurate. LDL can be measured as LDL particle number (NMR), apoprotein B, or direct LDL.

2) LDL particles are small. This is yet another reason why the weight-based LDL measures can be inaccurate. Imagine you have two identical glass jars full of marbles. One jar has small marbles, the other has large marbles, but both jars have the same weight in marbles. Which jar has more marbles? The one with small marbles, of course. The same phenomenon occurs with LDL particles: at the same weight, you can have different numbers of LDL particles. It’s the number of particles that better determine risk for heart disease, not the weight.

3) Triglycerides of 145 mg/dl is actually below the target advised by the National Cholesterol Education Panel Adult Treatment Panel-III guidelines, i.e., you’re okay by conventional standard. But look beneath the surface, and you’ll find that triglycerides at 145 mg/dl are associated with flagrant excesses of VLDL lipoprotein particles and a greater likelihood of a postprandial (after-eating) disorder (increased IDL or postprandial triglycerides), both of which add to coronary plaque.

4) This pattern is also commonly associated with higher blood sugar, higher blood pressure, increased inflammation (e.g., C-reactive protein), increased fibrinogen—all the facets of the metabolic syndrome, or pre-diabetes.

In fact, some of the most aggressive plaque growth—increasing heart scan scores—will occur with this specific pattern. So just achieving one facet of the Track Your Plaque Rule of 60 does not suffice. It’s the whole package that really stacks the odds in your favor of stopping or dropping your heart scan score.